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Ghana’s Mystery Tribe

Yitzchak Carmeli, Ghana, Africa

In one of the remote corners of Africa, among coconut orchards and banana fields, lives an isolated tribe named Beit Yisrael, whose members own an ancient sefer Torah, refrain from doing work on the seventh day, and don’t eat insects. Adventurer Yitzchak Carmeli spent 48 hours with this tribe and returned with one big question: Are these our lost brothers?

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

yitzchak in ghanaThe policeman fixed me with a stare, the whites of his eyes a sharp contrast to his ebony skin. The experience is one I will never forget.

“You want to go?” he asked in stilted English.

I cast a desperate glance around me. Everything insideGhana’s national airport was sinister, depressing, and dismal. A pair of weary fans whirred in a feeble attempt to cool the soupy air — no match for the whopping 95 percent humidity. While beads of sweat glistened on my forehead, I began to wonder what had possessed me to undertake this arduous journey to this remote African nation. I couldn’t find a single thing in my surroundings that was encouraging in any way — certainly not the only adornments in the hall, a peeling Coca-Cola poster and a few plants that looked like they had last been watered during the Portuguese regime.

In front of me in the line for passport control were at least 300 people. Nevertheless, there were just two clerks, and they didn’t look like they were in any hurry.

“Want to go?” the policeman repeated, a touch impatiently this time.

I looked back at him naively, with large, doe-like eyes. Of course I wanted to go. I had less than 48 hours to decipher the secret of the Beit Yisrael community, to meet with the Emperor of Ashanti, and to find the lost Jewish spark that was — or wasn’t — hiding between the crumbling walls running along theSlave Coast. The last thing I needed was to waste time in this terminal.

The officer made a knocking motion on my passport, which he was holding. Then I realized what he wanted: a modest baksheesh, a bit of bribe money, to push me to the front of the line. In a flash of understanding, I saw that the immigration clerks’ job was not to process passengers, but to ensure that the line would be as long as possible.

I took out a wrinkled five-cedi bill and carefully folded into my passport. The officer snickered. I hastily added three more cedi coins. His snickers turned into an outright snort of derision. I wanted to ask him if there was discount for yeshivah students, but wasn’t sure he’d grasp my humor. Who knows how long this back and forth would have continued if Hashem hadn’t had mercy on me. The officer was suddenly summoned elsewhere, while I was surprised to find myself standing in the second line, the one designated for VIPs who had paid the necessary bribe money.

A few minutes later I was outside, squinting in the bright, tropical sunshine. I settled into the air-conditioned car with a sigh of relief, while the driver maneuvered between the mango stands and the goat herds. Welcome to Ghana.


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